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I'm teaching English in China. I wanted middle school or younger, but I was put with some great high school kids and they sometimes ask me questions that I don't know how to answer yet. I'm a native speaker, but I'm learning how to teach the finer details about English grammar as I go.

So today, we had a question: "Mandela gave him a job _______ visitors around the prison." The answer is "taking". One of my students asked why "to take" is incorrect. All I wanted to tell him was that "it just is", but instead I asked him if it would be all right if I did some research and got back to him when I had a solid answer.

So my understanding of gerunds and infinitives is pretty basic, but to be honest, I feel like this particular instance warrants something else. Any thoughts? Can someone help me understand which grammar structure is giving us this rule?

I tried to use this variant to help explain it initially, but ended up just confusing myself more, because both sound right to my ears: "My job is to drive people around the city." "My job is driving people around the city."

  • Compare "He worked taking visitors around the prison," where "taking visitors..." describes his job, with "He worked to take visitors around the prison," where "to take..." indicates purpose: He made an effort to take visitors around the prison. Similarly, "gave him a job taking visitors" would mean "gave him a job that consisted of taking visitors." However, notice that both the V-ing and the infinitive are ambiguous. We can interpret it was Mandela who was taking visitors around the prison when he gave him a job, or he wanted to take visitors around the prison when he gave him the job. – Gustavson Nov 23 '17 at 1:57
  • Excellent question! When I ponder a question such as this one, some ideas usually pop up. But, in this case, none is forthcoming. I'm not even sure whether it's a gerund or a participle in this case. I am sure, though, that the ing form modifies a job. – Cerberus Nov 23 '17 at 2:09
  • @Cerberus, no, -ing is part of the Poss-ing complementizer, which converts the sentence [I drive people around the city] to a noun phrase that can stand as complement in the main clause [My job is __]. – Greg Lee Nov 23 '17 at 2:32
  • @Cerberus: Insofar as gerunds can be distinguished from present participles in English, I definitely think this is the former: we're not saying that the job takes visitors around the prison, but rather that it's the job of taking visitors around the prison. – ruakh Nov 23 '17 at 7:24
  • @GregLee: I'm not entirely sure I understand your terminology, nor why it should contract what I said. – Cerberus Nov 24 '17 at 14:30
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Re:

My job is to drive people around the city.
My job is driving people around the city.

You now have a verb (is) in between your noun (job) and the descriptor. After "is," either the present participle or infinitive is correct.

Re:

Mandela gave him a job taking visitors around the prison.

The object of the sentence is "job," being acted on by Mandela. However the visitors are also objects of a verb, and this is what happens when you have a verb with an object modifying a word that is itself an object - we use the present participle ("taking . . . around" forming the present participle of the verb "to take around").

Notes:

  • the answer does not depend on what Mandela did. It could be that Mandela fired him from a job taking..., or asked to talk to him about his job taking..., and the job would always be described as "taking visitors around the prison." Indeed it does not need Mandela at all. It could say: Joe has a job taking..., or I know of a job taking..., etc.

  • the answer does not depend on the verb being used as to describe the job. The job could be taking visitors around the prison, or teaching English, or juggling chainsaws. It would always be "a job [x]ing [whatever]."

  • incidentally, as the examples above show, it does not have to be a compound verb like "to take around." E.g., Mandela gave him a job teaching English.

  • it does not have to be a "job." Mandela promised him a career, a position, an appointment, a vocation, a thing to do, etc. It will always be "a [w] [x]ing [whatever]. Indeed, Mandela might also show him a man carrying a box around the prison.

This is subtly different from something like:

Mandela showed him a dog chasing cats.

In this case, the words "chasing cats" describe what the dog was doing. We could add "that was" very easily. But we cannot add "that was" to your original sentence, because it would not be an accurate description of the relationship between the object and the noun phrase. "Mandela gave him a job that was taking people around the prison" sounds like the job is doing the taking. Rather, as said in a comment, the relationship would be made explicit with the words "consisting of" or something like that. Nonetheless, it is the object-verb-object ordering that results in the use of the -ing form.

  • I don't think this explanation holds water: it would predict *"the opportunity [x]ing" instead of the correct "the opportunity to [x]" or "the opportunity of [x]ing". – ruakh Nov 23 '17 at 7:32
  • Good point. "Mandela gave him an opportunity to take people around the prison." An object/verb/object with infinitive form. As your example shows, the first object contributes to the choice of the verb form in the noun-phrase. Now: is "opportunity" a special case (it takes a notoriously weird grammar), and are others special cases (e.g., the document gave him the right to speak his mind), or is the rule simply different - that in noun phrases the choice of verb is simply arbitrary and depends on the first noun? – Adam Nov 23 '17 at 17:37
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The very best answer, in my opinion, is the truth. Since they both sound right to your ears, tell your student that they both sound right to your ears. After all, there is no overarching principle of language that a difference in expression always implies a difference in meaning or acceptability or "correctness".

  • 1
    You've misread the question. The question is asking why "[...] gave him a job to take visitors [...]" is wrong: that is, why it sounds wrong to native speakers. – ruakh Nov 23 '17 at 19:21
  • @ruakh, You seemed to have missed that the questioner is a native speaker and the alternatives both sound right to his ears. We can deduce that both sound okay to at least one native speaker. Right? – Greg Lee Nov 23 '17 at 21:49
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    Re: "the alternatives both sound right to his [sic] ears": No, you've misread the question. She's saying that "My job is to drive [...]" sounds right, and that it's therefore unhelpful in explaining why *"[...] gave him a job to take visitors [...]" does not. – ruakh Nov 23 '17 at 22:10

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